Why the Spanish Grand Prix is about more than just racing

Though scheduling the Russian Grand Prix immediately before the Spanish Grand Prix adds an exciting geopolitical element to proceedings, the latter remains F1’s official return to Europe.

But the continental leg of the year is about more than just a reunion with the familiar — the season proper starts in Spain.

So far the sport’s 10 teams have been running glorified launch-spec cars good enough to make a fist of the first four flyaway rounds but inevitably lacking when it comes to the car’s ultimate form.

Learnings from preseason testing the opening races will have given constructions bucketloads of data with which to set their development compasses, and the culmination of all that experience will be expressed in Spain.

That’s why in Barcelona, quite aside from the racing — which tends to be a bit dull due to the circuit characteristics and the reams of testing data collected over decades — will be fascinating.

This weekend isn’t about how cars compare to one another; it’s about how they compare between Russia and Spain. Performance here can make or break a season.

For example, the end of 2016 — which had Mercedes occasionally challenged by second-placed Red Bull Racing and Ferrari languishing in third — belied how the year began.

Mercedes had its advantage, but Ferrari should have won in Australia and came close to victory in Bahrain — the two races it has won in 2017 — and, as is the case this year, Red Bull had scored 57 points up to Spain.

It was only after the Spanish Grand Prix that the competitive picture changed.

In Russia last year Ferrari qualified 0.7 seconds behind pole, but by Spain it was 1.3 seconds off the pace. Red Bull Racing, meanwhile, moved from 1.7 seconds back to just 0.6 seconds behind pole position.

Averaging qualifying times in rounds one to four compared to rounds five (the Spanish Grand Prix) to eight prove the difference to be beyond anomaly.

Ferrari’s average gap to pole grew from 0.658 seconds to 0.857 seconds, whereas RBR improved its 1.334-second deficit to just 0.518 seconds, including pole on Monte Carlo.

Accordingly Ferrari’s 19-point advantage over Red Bull Racing was turned into a 70-point deficit by year’s end.

If that wasn’t enough to put Maranello under pressure this week, rumours that Red Bull Racing’s RB13 will undergo such change that it would be better classified as a prototype RB14 than a mere B-spec car will have Italian brows furrowed with concern.

Red Bull Racing needs such a step, too, for while on the one hand the team is pressurising Ferrari’s well-known developmental weakness, its chronic downforce problems have left it open to attack from Force India.

Force India has made itself something of a B-spec master in recent years, biding its time and resources in the year’s opening months to unleash a fully formed car concept after Spain. In 2016, for example, it sat in a distant eighth place on the constructors table and 43 points behind Williams after four rounds; by the end of the year it was comfortably fourth and 35 points ahead of its midfield rival.

It sounds unlikely, but a botched Bull could easily give way to an irresistible Force. Force India is the only team bar Mercedes and Ferrari to have both cars score points in every race this year, and Sergio Perez has failed to finish only once since last year’s Spanish Grand Prix upgrade, scoring points in all but one of those finishes.

Force India’s quest to overhaul RBR’s 26-point gap may feature Renault as a dark horse, with Nico Hülkenberg in particular proving the RS17 an impressive qualifier. Updates to address the car’s race-trim weaknesses will come on tap in Spain, which could see the French manufacturer make another step up the grid after last year’s painful transition campaign.

But none of this takes the pressure off one-point constructors title leader Mercedes. While the Silver Arrows has an enviable development record, problems with the car’s wheelbase, an apparently poor understanding of Pirelli’s tyres and even issues with the car’s weight due to gearbox gremlins have conspired offseason to deprive Mercedes of its 2016 advantage.

The Brackley and Brixworth workforce will know they must match Ferrari’s developments at a minimum from here on in — anything less will be effectively to slip backwards, which is impermissible for the triple reigning constructors champion.

“It’s very simple, everyone will come with upgrades,” Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda said succinctly. “The season will start new.”

We may be on the brink of the quarter-season mark, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of Formula One 2017.